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Thursday, June 20, 2024

An Unsung Hero of Gaming History Deserves a Higher Profile

Search “video cartridge inventor” on Google. Do you see Jerry Lawson? Good. So why don’t more people know this fact?

It might have to do with confusion about the actual creator of the medium. Ten years after his death, Lawson still isn’t a household name. Why?

Press Start

If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, you remember the cartridge era. Without cartridges, games like Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, Metroid, Sonic the Hedgehog, Madden NFL, and Street Fighter II would never have been possible. And without Jerry Lawson, cartridges would not have been possible.

In August, Anthony Frasier, a Black tech and media entrepreneur from Newark, New Jersey, created and narrated Raising the Game, an Audible original podcast. He wonders aloud why few understand Lawson’s impact. Lawson, the true inventor and engineer of the video game cartridge, created an essential component of the multibillion-dollar gaming industry. Why, then, are his accomplishments hidden behind a wall of white?

Frasier says that he discovered Lawson’s story while working in Silicon Valley trying to build his tech startup. He attended a memorial service for Lawson even though he was just some random guy who never knew him. “I left that day inspired, but angry I had been robbed of examples like this to model my career after. I wanted to put an end to that.” Though he started the project back in 2019, when he first got connected with Audible, all of the research and lining up all the interviews couldn’t be completed until this year, the 10th anniversary of Lawson’s death.

Player One: The Life of Lawson

It’s not difficult to learn more about Lawson if you go looking. Born in 1940, in Brooklyn, New York, Lawson grew up in the projects in Jamaica, Queens, where kids like himself were often dismissed.

Lawson’s grandfather was from the South and trained in physics, worked for the post office and eventually became postmaster—it was just out of the question for a Black man to get a job in science in the South back then. So Lawson’s fascination with science began early. Lawson’s father was a longshoreman who worked three days a week, during which he’d make as much as the average man made in six days. However, the longshoreman nurtured in the boy the fascination that would propel him to greatness. Lawson’s mother used a fake address to get him into a white school, and was the greatest inspiration for his later career. She also bought him the Hallicrafters Model S-38 shortwave radio that led to Lawson building converters and antennas. By 13, he was making walkie-talkies from scratch and selling them to neighborhood kids. He also worked for local stores. They’d commission him to fix their clients’ TV sets, and he also worked on HAM radios.

In 1968, Lawson and his wife moved to Silicon Valley to be near emerging technologies, like microprocessors, transistors, and semiconductors. Lawson landed a job as a field-applications engineering consultant for Fairchild Camera and Instrument, basically a traveling troubleshooter.

Four years later, in 1972, Lawson passed an arcade and was instantly mesmerized by Pong. One year earlier, Intel released its 4004 microprocessor. Microprocessors had never been used in gaming before, but Lawson got the idea he could put a microprocessor in a video game. He designed a coin-operated video game cabinet: Demolition Derby. He tested it at a local pizza parlor, and it turned out to be quite popular. Inside was a Fairchild F8 microprocessor. Someone learned about his side-project, and while some wanted to fire Lawson for his seeming conflict of interest in creating video games on the side with his own company’s microprocessors, execs immediately promoted him. Shortly thereafter, Lawson became director of engineering and marketing for Fairchild’s new video games division.

Around this same time, home consoles were making inroads, but the consoles had no memory of their own. Before cartridges, video games were just on the console, preprogrammed. Players were stuck playing the same couple of games or buying a new console that had new games on it, and buying a new console was pricey.

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Lawson, and his team at Fairchild, saw the issue for what it was, and created the Fairchild Channel F, the world’s first cartridge-based video game console, in 1976. In an interview in 2009, Lawson said, “I had a secret assignment. Even the boss that I worked for wasn’t to know what I was doing. I was directly reporting to a vice president at Fairchild with a budget.”

Then the interviewer noted: “It might seem crazy, but after reading through hundreds of issues of dozens of publications spanning four decades, it was the first time I had ever seen a photograph of a Black professional in a computer magazine.”

The rest would be history: Atari took over the games market the very next year in 1977—prioritizing the exact concept Lawson pioneered: The video game cartridge. Allan Alcorn, creator of Pong and early Atari employee, even said in an interview: “We determined at Atari that clearly the cartridge-based game was the way to go. At that point, with a cartridge-based game, we sure as hell couldn’t say we couldn’t make one because Jerry had already done it!” According to Alcorn, the thing that kept Lawson from greater success was that Fairchild was bad at marketing, and Atari was not.

Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 to create VideoSoft, a company that produced video games for Atari. By 1984, he had to close up shop. This lined up with the international video game crash of 1983-84.

Continue?

Anthony Frasier acknowledges in Raising the Game that Lawson wasn’t the only person who worked on the cartridge because, except on very rare occasions, no invention is created in a vacuum. However, he questions why it’s so important that gaming history only names Haskel and Wallace as the cartridge’s creators.

Frasier says, “You can’t run a paternity test on an idea. Even patents don’t tell the whole story. It can often be impossible to figure out who invented what because sometimes people come up with things independently at more or less the same time.” He’s right. Google seems to think Lawrence Kirschner and Wallace Haskel created the ROM cartridge … both with and without a team. But most definitely without Jerry Lawson.

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Nick Talesford, who shares the actual patent for the video game cartridge with several others, also acknowledges that a team of people should get the credit for the creation of the cartridge. Talesford noted that his former company, Alpex, created the concept for the idea. But that, “I would put Ron, Me, and Jerry in that group.” Lawson’s name, however, was conveniently left off the patent. Even though he was the leader of the team, and the project.

By the 1990s, Lawson focused most of his energy on mentoring and advising students across the country. While writing a book about his life and writing science fiction, he was diagnosed with diabetes and lost most of his sight in one eye, and eventually one of his legs was amputated. He passed away in 2011 due to complications of the disease.

Throughout the Raising the Game, we find that all of the interviewees admit Lawson’s race played a part in his not getting his due over these past four decades.

Of course, today, you don’t need a cartridge, a CD, or even a television to play games. But it was Jerry Lawson’s game cartridge that proved that people wanted to be able to buy a console once and play multiple games on it, old and new, and Lawson’s technology that made it possible.

Microsoft has recently donated to the Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund for Black and Indigenous Students, operated by USC’s Games Program. The fund, launched last year, represents America’s number one university gaming program, and the USC Games program has been ranked number one by the Princeton Review for the past 11 years. This donation, along with another from Take-Two Interactive Software, will go toward supporting and building out the program for years to come. And since his death, Lawson’s personal papers and artifacts have been preserved in the Strong National Museum of Play, and a school in South Central even carries his namesake.

When we asked Anthony Frasier what he wants people to take from his podcast, he says, “Before people start listening, I would want them to approach it with an open mind. I want people to walk away from Raising the Game ready to celebrate Lawson’s accomplishments and to spread the word.”

About once every 10 years, Jerry Lawson gets rediscovered. Mentioned in some interview or highlighted in a story about Black History Month, but almost never given credit for creating the video game cartridge. This time it should stick. This time, his story should come once every day.

Update Jan 26, 2022: Clarified details about USC Games program and the Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund for Black and Indigenous Students.


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